Wyoming schools offer Kernels unique post-Christmas challenge

Mitchell faces off with Gillette, Wyoming's Campbell County and Thunder Basin in the I-90 Challenge.

Mitchell's Caden Hinker (20) goes around Rapid City Central's Kohl Meisman to the basket during a game on Dec. 18 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

For the first time in a decade, Mitchell High School will not be competing in the Hoop City Classic. But there will still be post-Christmas hoops at the Corn Palace.

The Kernels and three other teams left scrambling to fill scheduling holes when the annual classic was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns and decided to partner for a two-day set of games. Mitchell and Yankton will now play back-to-back games against Gillette, Wyoming-based Campbell County and Thunder Basin today and Tuesday in the I-90 Challenge.

Mitchell was slated to face Campbell County at the Sanford Pentagon on Dec. 28, but the two will now square off at 7 p.m. today at the Corn Palace, before battling Thunder Basin at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Yankton will also host Thunder Basin today and Campbell County Tuesday.

For the 4-0 Kernels, preparation for their Wyoming foes will not look much different than typical Hoop City foes, but they hope it produces different results after dropping 15 consecutive Hoop City Classic games dating back to 2012.

“We’re playing a high school rather than an academy, where you can play the best you can play and it’s not good enough,” MHS head coach Todd Neuendorf said. “... We’re holding ourselves to a pretty high standard and they want to go out and show those guys. We want to show that we can compete with them.”


Both of Mitchell’s opponents should offer a clash of styles, as Campbell County and Thunder Basin prefer a fast-paced game. The Kernels will have a significant size advantage in their first game against the Camels, whose two tallest players are not slated to play.

Like Mitchell, Campbell County is also 4-0 and ranked No. 5 in the coaches and media preseason poll. But while the Kernels average 50 points per game, the Camels have posted 78.5 points per contest. They are led by 5-foot-8 point guard Luke Hladky — who led Wyoming in scoring last season — and 6-foot-1 running mate Jefferson Neary.

Hladky averages 22.5 points, 7.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game, while Neary has posted 21 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.8 steals per game. Austin Robertson, a 6-2 guard, also averages 13.5 points per game.

But without its two tallest post players, a shortened bench could change the way Campbell County operates, particularly when attempting to guard the size of Mitchell’s 6-10 Zane Alm and 6-6 Caden Hinker.

“Whoever is guarding those guys is going to be outmatched and outsized,” Campbell County head coach Bubba Hladky said. “They’re going to have to step up to the challenge and the teams’ going to have to help them out. They’re not going to be able to guard them by themselves. It’s going to be a challenge, but the boys are looking forward to it.”

The Camels are not unfamiliar with top-notch competition, having held a tournament with similar talent to the Hoop City Classic in recent years, but was also canceled this year.

“We haven’t had to travel much,” Hladky said. “We went out to the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas a few years back and we started going to a holiday tournament in Colorado. We’ve seen different styles and different programs. It’s good for us just to get out of Wyoming.”

Thunder Basin also enters the week 4-0 — including a 55-40 win over St. Thomas More on Dec. 12 — and is the No. 2-ranked team in Wyoming. The Bolts have scored 66 points per game and have four players that have scored in double figures.


Deegan Williams, a 6-2 guard, leads the team with 19.8 points per game, while 6-1 guard McKale Holte has put up 14.3 points per game.

Similar to Campbell County, Thunder Basin is limited in size, with no player taller than 6-3. The game gives Mitchell a chance to control the pace, something it has been inconsistent with during its initial four-game stretch to start the year.

“We’re trying to become a team that runs opportunistically,” Neuendorf said. “If we don’t have anything, we don’t want to run down and throw up a quick shot. We have those two bigs that we can run through that are hard to stop in a half-court set. We tried to speed up Stevens and it ended up backfiring on us. There’s times we want to run, but there’s times we want to settle in.”

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